Detroit Schools Face Cuts From Emergency Financial Manager

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Faced with a $300 million deficit and shrinking enrollment, the Detroit public school system faces serious challenges. This year, 23 schools in the city are slated to be shut down, leaving thousands of students to attend new schools. Hundreds of teachers, support staff and administrators are also at risk of losing their jobs. Robert Bobb, financial manager for Detroit Public schools, explains the crisis.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, that tax refund is so close, you can almost feel the money in your pocket. Meanwhile, bills are piling up. So should you get that tax rebate loan? Our money coach has the answer in just a few minutes.

But first, we go to Detroit. Detroit takes another blow, this time to its public school system. Faced with a $300 million deficit and shrinking enrollment, the schools emergency financial manager is proposing to close 23 schools, a move that would force more than 7,000 students to change schools. Hundreds of teachers, support staff and administrators would also likely lose their jobs.

Joining us now to talk about all this is Robert Bobb. He is the emergency financial manager of the Detroit Public schools. He is responsible for finding ways to close the system's deficit. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ROBERT BOBB (Emergency Financial Manager, Detroit Public Schools): Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: Can you walk us through the process of deciding that you, A, had to close this many schools and, B, which schools should be closed.

Mr. BOBB: To close a $303 million budget deficit, it does require some very drastic decisions. First of all, the Detroit Public Schools is built for a school system at one time in its history that had well over 175,000 students. Those facilities are still in existence today, when our student population is approximately 95,000. We've lost more than 40 percent of our student population within the last 10 years.

But we have children who are in school facilities, for example, we have an enrolment in some of our buildings of 300, 375 students in buildings that were constructed for 1100-1200 students. And we're required to heat, provide all of the infrastructure, maintenance costs for a large facility with fewer students. And so to close the budget deficit, we have initiated a number of actions. First, we've frozen all travel, particularly for administrative personnel, not for students.

We have frozen all vacant, current vacant positions and that's going to save us a little over $2-3 million between now and the end of our fiscal year. But we have to look at school closures. And so, we will be closing 23 schools this summer. And those closings were determined based on the adequate yearly progress in those school buildings. It was, the determination was made based on the amount of square feet that we have in those facilities with the fewer children that we have.

So we looked at the demographics and enrollment trends in those facilities. We also wanted to make sure that in many of these facilities we have excellent community and business partners. And therefore, we wanted to make sure that we are able to transfer those partnerships to other buildings. And so, the 7,000-plus students who'll be moving from the closed building to the receiving buildings, we want those partnerships to follow those students as well.

MARTIN: You were appointed in January, by Michigan's Governor Jennifer Granholm. And you have broad powers to make this decision. But technically, school closures are the kind of thing that, it evokes a really strong reaction. A lot of times people have very strong attachments to a particular school, maybe their parents went to the same school, their children are going to the same school that the parents went to. So, I wanted to ask what kind of reaction you're getting.

Mr. BOBB: You know, I'm very sensitive to these issues, because where we send our children to school is an important decision for parents and for the guardians of those children. But the reality is that we have too few children to occupy these large facilities that we have. You know, parents are concerned and rightfully so. I intend to conduct a series of town hall meetings with the school community, in each of the 23 districts, as it were, where schools are being closed.

But we also have some excellent receiving schools and therefore, we want to ensure parents that their children will go from some schools that are failing to schools where there are very strong academic programs.

MARTIN: You know what I don't understand though, is that I think everybody, the school board, the unions, the mayor, all agree that the schools are under-enrolled, that many of the buildings are too large for the number of students who are attending these schools, and yet the teachers, the parents, the students still complain that classes are overcrowded and that the teachers are overworked. How do you reconcile that discrepancy in perception?

Mr. BOBB: I sent out 700-plus non-renewal notices to principals and to assistant principals and curriculum leaders. These are basically to say that your contracts for the next school year would not be renewed, but you have a right to an appeal. And I can tell you that in some instances, we do have overcrowded classrooms. But those classrooms are overcrowded not because we don't have the space for children but because in some instances, we have children who are enrolled in charter schools at the beginning of a school year, they're re-enrolled back into the public schools.

But the bottom line is that we have too large facilities, even with over enrolment. If we were to properly right size every class in some of our school buildings, we will still have massive amount of square feet still available for more schools - children.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the financial conditions facing the Detroit public schools. We're speaking with Robert Bobb. He is the Emergency Financial Manager for that public school system. Michigan has received a lot of money from the Federal stimulus package passed by the Congress and signed by President Obama. Have you approached state leaders for some of this money and what would you use it for?

Mr. BOBB: Oh, absolutely. I've submitted a formal request to Governor Granholm for $200 million for stimulus package funds for the immediate needs of the school district. For example, all of the schools that are receiving new children, we want to ensure that, you know, the bathrooms, the quality of life issues are taking place. And so, we have a summer rush for all of those facilities that are going to be the receiving schools for these new children. And so we want to spend about $20 million.

For some of our existing buildings we also want to spend about $88 million of, you know, reconstruction, rehabilitation of some of the facilities where we have excellent academic programs currently occurring in older facilities. The one thing that I hear consistently across Detroit, is that we have to ensure that our children are in safe facilities. And therefore, I'm requesting $25 million to ensure that we implement our safety audits that will be conducted of every school, so that we have the appropriate security personnel in those schools, that we have there appropriate electronic monitoring.

And then finally, we have to work with the city government to ensure that children are safe in their neighborhoods. Because every parent want their children to be in a school where there's rigor in the academic programs, where there is safety and security in those buildings, where there is a dedicated professional staff in the classroom and in the school overall that's going to care about their children, and is going to work with them to improve their academic standings.

MARTIN: And Mr. Bobb, I wanted to ask you, you're a veteran of a number of large school systems with difficulties. You're a former president of the District of Columbia School Board. You worked at Oakland, you worked in a number of large systems. How does the challenge you face in Detroit compare with the challenges you faced in some of these other places? Have you ever seen anything like this?

Mr. BOBB: No, there really is no comparison. For example, even in the District of Columbia, where we have challenges in the public school system, we still were able to provide $100 million for the new chancellor coming into that school system. In Detroit, no such funds exist. I also found in my initial week here, started in March 2nd, just in the first 30 days, we were rightsizing a budget deficit when the school system approved the budget that stated that it had a surplus for 2009.

We found 500-plus employees who are currently on the payroll with no budget at all. We hear of issues of, you know, graf and corruption. I have hired as an inspector general, I have put in a new inspector general's office with several former FBI investigators in that office to make ensure that we address the issues of fraud, abuse and waste. We are doing a complete remake of the Detroit Public Schools system.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, where's that money going to come from?

Mr. BOBB: That money is coming through the Title I program. If we don't spend the money, Michel, we have to return those dollars to the state.

MARTIN: So that's Federal money? Those are Federal dollars. And I'm totally committed to not give back one Red cent.

MARTIN: You've pointed out a picture of under-utilized buildings. You've talked about corruption. You've talked about mismanagement. You've talked about no-show jobs. Is this problem fixable?

Mr. BOBB: Oh, the problem is definitely fixable, but do you know what? This problem will never be fixed if you just tinker on the margin. This is on the ground, in the trenches, total and complete remake of a school district, unlike any that I've experienced in my career of working and reforming cities.

We also have 70 previously closed school buildings that are a blight on the community. What I intend to do this summer is to bring together the best minds from our colleges and universities, schools of urban planning and architectural design, and we're going to develop very specific, mixed-use planned development for each of those properties so that in the long term, the Detroit public schools will not continue to be a blight on the neighborhoods where we have closed school buildings.

But I want to go back to something that's really important, the academic programs. We have excellent programs in Detroit public schools. But we also have children, when I interview principals and academic curriculum leaders, you know, we have children who are entering the ninth grade still reading at the fourth and fifth-grade level. That is unacceptable.

MARTIN: Mr. Bobb, I understand why it should be fixed. I understand why it needs to be fixed. But what I'm asking you is can it be?

Mr. BOBB: I am totally convinced, Michel, that it can be fixed.

MARTIN: Because?

Mr. BOBB: Because if we don't fix it, then what we've done is we have relegated to the children, you know, thousands of the kids in this major urban city, to a lifestyle where it creates a greater financial burden on all of our systems.

I mean, this is a proven fact. When children drop out of high school, when they drop out, their chances of being employed decreases substantially. Their chances of being involved in the criminal justice system increases, as well. And so this is the time where we have to put the stake in the ground on behalf of children in these communities.

And so I've met with a number of parents. I've met with members of the community, and what I am saying to everyone, do we have the will to make these changes? And I'm hearing that, yes, we do have the will do that.

MARTIN: Robert Bobb is the Emergency Financial Manager for Detroit Public Schools. He was kind enough to join us from member station WDET in Detroit. Mr. Bobb, thank you for joining us. Will you keep us posted?

Mr. BOBB: Absolutely.

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